Dunlop, a champion pre-war rugby player and talented surgeon, was with the Australian 7th Division when captured by the Imperial Japanese Army in Java. He spent nearly 4 years as a POW officer commanding a section of allied prisoners, worked on the notorious Thai-Burma railroad and kept a secret diary of his time as a POW doctor, which he eventually published in 1986.
The diaries convey a sense of moral dignity in the face of the horror of the Japanese war effort that has proved widely popular to fellow Australian POW's and the general public. It helps that they are written in a lucid, witty prose that some have compared to great European works of second world war survivor literature like Primo Levi's If I Am A Man.
All of which sets a high standard for a staged adaptation to emulate, and this production falls short in several regards. Alan Hopgood's script tells the story in a series of flashbacks between the old Weary (Ronald Falk) and a young Weary (Samuel Johnson). Dion Mills plays a kind of chorus, helping to tell the story as a series of Australian soldiers and Japanese guards. The result is competent but also slightly pedestrian, only occasionally rising to the challenge set by the subject matter. There are flashes of humour, but also bouts of sentimentality.
Roger Hodgman's direction doesn't help. He takes a conservative - even stodgy - approach to the text that left this reviewer wondering if some more risks might have been justified. David Bridie's music was poorly integrated, at times too loud for the actors, at times merely out of place.
The performances were uneven. Ronald Falk was a revelation as the patrician elder Dunlop, effortlessly displaying decades of craft in a commanding performance. Dion Mills was impressive in a difficult bits-and-pieces role, but Samuel Johnson struggled, particularly with his voice projection. Perhaps it was nerves, as he improved after interval, but it was a disappointing display for one of his talents.
This production of Weary: The Story of Sir Edward Dunlop is therefore a missed opportunity. It's well-drawn, well staged and professional. But, considering the strength of the original diaries, it is also oddly passionless, despite the best efforts of Ronald Falk. Dunlop and his story deserves better, and Hopgood and Hodgman are both capable of it. They haven't delivered.
McPherson Touring and Regional Arts Victoria presents
Weary: The Story of Sir Edward Dunlop
By Alan Hopgood
Venue: Frankston Arts Centre | Cnr Davey & Young Streets, Frankston
Dates/Times: Monday 23 July 8pm & Tuesday 24 July 1pm & 8pm
Tickets: Adult $45, PSSU $40, Under 26 $27, ATS $33
Bookings: 9784 1060 or artscentre.frankston.vic.gov.au
Touring regional Victoria in July and August